Toyota executive maps out the future of ‘computers on wheels’

James Kuffner: “I’m a big fan of ‘Knight Rider.’ And the idea that there’s some intelligence embedded there in a vehicle is going to be a big idea.” Photo credit: Greg Horvath

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Computer sciences will take automobiles to future capabilities, turning them into “computers on wheels,” said a Toyota executive recently recruited from Google.

Artificial intelligence, robotics and the cloud will result in vehicles that are safer, more personalized and better connected to other cars, infrastructure and smartphones, said James Kuffner, chief technology officer at Toyota Research Institute.

“I’m a big fan of ‘Knight Rider,’” Kuffner told Automotive News, referring the 1980s TV show about a hyper-sophisticated car. “And the idea that there’s some intelligence embedded there in a vehicle is going to be a big idea.”

Kuffner joined Toyota in January after working in Google’s robotics division. Toyota said last year that it will spend $1 billion to create the Toyota Research Institute with the goal of developing AI that will be the backbone of automated and connected vehicles.

Kuffner told an audience at the CAR Management Briefing Seminars Wednesday that tech companies and regulators must be more collaborative to accelerate the development of robotics and AI in vehicles.

“All of this isn’t possible unless you have great partnerships between the regulatory agencies, government, to create a good environment,” he said.

Kuffner said Google’s self-driving car project proved to be a catalyst for automakers, including Toyota, to shift their outlook on software technology. He said Toyota and others are now more likely to view their vehicles as “computers on wheels,” a mentality that he said can lead to the development of new software that can change consumers’ relationships with their vehicles.

“If you have software systems that are able to adapt and to be personalized,” he said, “those are things that I think will provide value and give customers a much better experience.”

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